The Orlando Sentinel reported that NASA administrator Charles Bolden met with White House officials recently to lobby for the agency’s plan to develop a small space station at the Earth – Moon L-2 La Grange point beyond the lunar far side.
If approved, the station, would represent the first step along the so-called “flexible path”of space exploration which was adopted by the Obama Administration after cancelling Project Constellation in 2010. The L-2 station is premised on a number of potential uses, including a research platform for studying the environment of deep space, a jumping off point for missions bound for the lunar surface, as well as a line of sight telerobotics for the lunar far side. Another potential use, listed as an option in yesterday’s Mars Program Planning Group Report, is that of an initial receiving point for a Mars sample return mission.
The proposal , which has not received any comment form the Obama administration, would provide the controversial Space Launch System and Orion capsule an initial destination of sorts beyond a lunar flyby, offers scientific merit, but like everything else, must be weighed in terms of cost and alternatives. Whereas parts of the station would be assembled out of spare International Space Station components, presumably including a Boeing built habitation module currently in storage at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Al, other parts would be provided through participation by international partners.
At this point, it is merely a proposal, and one which is consistent with current policy. Also, from a factual standpoint it would send American astronauts physically further than they have previously traveled. Nevertheless, if it receives any traction, the L-2 station proposal is certain to come under harsh criticism from advocates of Lunar and Mars exploration who see it as an expensive and unnecessary diversion from surface bound missions.
Moving into the era of commercial re-supply for the station we already have, ISS; this is a proposal which could benefit from the lessons of COTS and the incorporate the role of similar partnerships in lowering costs and achieving viability (SpaceX, Bigelow), or it could follow an all too familiar path of top down design with pre-determined infrastructure (SLS, Orion) and absorb another decade of high costs and limited progress. In any event, it will be interesting to track the progress of this proposal and how it fares versus any alternatives, or as many fear, nothing at all.